Next time you pop the top of a canned drink, you might want to take a peek under the pull tab. There could be a coupon hiding under there.

In an unusual marriage of high-tech and low-tech, a packaging company has unveiled an “interactive can” that can provide you with special offers and coupons – and provide the beverage maker with insight into your purchasing and consumption habits. And it’s all on that tiny little pull tab.

A division of American can manufacturer Crown Holdings introduced its CrownSmart design at a recent European trade show, and plans to bring it to market early next year.

The design consists of a tiny QR code printed on the underside of the can’s pull tab. If you scan the code with a smartphone bar code reader, you can score a coupon, win a prize, enter a contest, or whatever else the beverage maker might dream up.

It’s something of a higher-tech version of a very low-tech couponing platform – “peelies”, or on-pack coupons, that are stuck right onto a product’s packaging. In this case, the CrownSmart code can only be seen, scanned or redeemed by the person who buys and opens the can. No more coming across a shelf full of products with that telltale sticky backing, indicating that someone has “harvested” all the coupons without actually buying the products.

Plus, “each code is unique,” explained Crown’s Marketing & Business Development Director Matt Twiss. “Whereas you would normally see maybe a QR code printed onto the body of the can, that QR code would actually be the same code on every single can. The real difference here with CrownSmart is that every single code on every single can is different.”

That will make it something of a treasure hunt every time you crack open a cold one. Twiss said the code can lead you to anything from a coupon, to a music download, to a link to content on a company’s website. So you never know what you’re going to get when you scan that code.


But the beverage maker knows what it’s going to get – a whole lot of information. About you.

The manufacturer will know which codes were distributed in which areas, and to which stores. So once the pop top code is scanned, the beverage brand will know where and roughly when it was purchased. And if you have location services enabled on your phone when you scan the code, the manufacturer will know exactly when and where you popped that can top and consumed its product. The offers attached to the codes can even be changed on the fly, based on your location, the weather, your purchase history, or just about anything.

The interactive element, together with the fact that the code can only be scanned after the can is opened, ensures that the brand will reach precisely the people it wants to – the end users. “The person who buys the can isn’t necessarily the one who consumes it,” Twiss said. So once a code is scanned, the brand will know it’s dealing with a person who actually drinks its product.

Unless, that is, the person who drinks from the can doesn’t bother scanning the code. Then you might find particularly persistent deal-seekers digging through recycle bins, scanning pop tops in the hopes of scoring someone else’s discarded deal.

And that could have the unintended side effect of fueling the persistent urban legend that pop tops have some kind of special value. For decades, scores of well-meaning people have been duped into believing that pull tabs can be redeemed for time on a kidney dialysis machine or other charitable causes, only to be disappointed to learn that the tabs have no value other than the going rate for aluminum scrap recycling. Cans bring in mere pennies per pound, which means the typical pop top is worth roughly 1/30th of a cent.

These days, QR codes might not count as particularly high-tech anymore, and beverage can pull tabs certainly don’t. But neither, arguably, are the major soft drinks’ current rewards programs, which require you to type out alphanumeric codes found under bottle caps or imprinted inside the packaging. Scanning a tiny QR code for an instant reward, might prove more appealing to many.

Especially to the brands themselves. “CrownSmart gives brands instant access to crucial consumer behavior, allowing them to anticipate trends, understand their market, interact with consumers and ultimately, increase their market share,” the company said in announcing the launch. And “with billions of unique codes available, the possibilities for brand owners are as infinite as the can itself.”

CrownSmart will launch in Europe soon, with a possible American launch to follow. So keep an eye on your pop tops – they won’t earn anyone free dialysis, but they may prove to be pretty valuable after all.

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